I shall only tell you, that as there is one sort of prayer wherein we make use of the voice, which is necessary in public, and may sometimes have its own advantages in private; and another, wherein through we utter no sound, yet we conceive the expressions, and form the words, as it were, in our minds; so there is a third and more sublime of prayer, wherein the soul takes a higher flight, and having collected all its forces by long and serious meditation, it darteth itself (if I may so speak) towards God in signs and groans, and thoughts too big for expression.1
Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man
It's just a lot of bunk...based on personal intuition.2
John F. MacArthur (Pastor, Grace Community Church
and President, The Master's Seminary).
Much of my blog so far focused on the conceptual universe; that is, looking at ideas and mental constructions as they relate to theological, hermeneutic, historical and social aspects of Christianity. There is, however, an aspect of Christianity that is at least as important as the conceptual, and yet often ignored, whether in modernist or postmodernist observations of the faith. Theologians call it pneumatology (which has nothing to do with inflating automobile tires).
More simply, it is the role of the third part of the Trinity, introduced at Pentecost—the Holy Spirit. While Christianity is, as its name implies, centered on the kerygma of the sacrifice and atonement of the Cross, it is the Spirit that accompanies us on our daily journey through life. Catholic and Orthodox traditions have long recognized the role of the Spirit through the traditional rituals of worship and the work of the cloistered religious. The Reformation, however, moved worship further and further into a focus on biblical hermeneutics, now often called “explicatory preaching,” and away from the centering of the worshiper on more purely spiritual considerations.
The division between experiencing faith through the spirit and the text is as pointed and divergent as the two quotes above. On the one hand, seventeenth-century Scots Puritan theologian Scougal attempts to verbalize the quest for realizing the presence of the Spirit. MacArthur, a Calvinist and dispensationalist, is understandably suspicious of something (specifically, contemplative prayer) that seems to lead away from the purely verbal experience of reading, and especially, we assume, what his own extensive glosses and sermons point to as its precise meaning.3
Today, more than 300M Christians are part of a movement variously called charismatic, Pentecostal or continualist.4 It is most often associated with the Azusa Street Revival in downtown Los Angeles, while others point to the so-called Third Wave movement begun at St. Mark's large Episcopal church in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys and carried on at St. Luke's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.5 At any rate, while some charismatic Protestants, wary of denominational hostility or “liberal” leanings, moved to create their own church organizations6, the movement has spread to virtually all corners of Christianity, including Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed and Orthodox traditions.
Whatever one's attitude toward the charismatic movement, all Christianity acknowledges the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and that we approach and deal with them through prayer. Some prayers are formal, carefully written and widely recognized prayers that we use to express ourselves in ways that allow us to focus on the meaning of our prayer, rather than distract ourselves with finding the words to verbalize. For example, the Lord's Prayer, or Our Father, is virtually universal through all Christian confessions, and sometimes the only memorized prayer known by evangelicals.
The spontaneous prayer is prevalent in Protestant circles, possibly because it seems less “Catholic,” which until the twentieth century many Protestants considered to be full of heretical ideas and practices. Protestant ministers, at any rate, must develop a strong ability to publicly pray off the cuff.
The book about prayer, whether offering prewritten prayers usable by individuals, or discussing occasions and approaches to personal prayer, is a staple of bookstores and organizations of all the Christian confessions. There are numerous examples of prayers in the scriptures and constant mentions that prayer of some type must be a significant part of Christian life and belief.
Just how do believers move into a closer relationship with the Spirit? I would like to share one approach which I have found rewarding. This is not intended as a complete guide to prayer, nor does it follow a particular confession's distinct doctrine or dogma. It began, for me, with the Friends (Quaker) worship of my childhood, but has been informed by a wide assortment of people, from Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and interdenominational backgrounds, both ancient and contemporary.7
This Is a six-step process similar to an ancient Christian practice often identified with St. Benedict, but widely practiced in various monastic and religious traditions. Pope Benedict XVI recommended it more than once, and it was also endorsed by Vatican II in 1965. Called “Lectio Divina” (divine reading), and developed and used primarily in the Catholic tradition, it nevertheless is not an exclusively Catholic activity.
Why is it not used more in Protestantism?
MacArthur's comment at the beginning of this entry explains a lot. Sola Scriptura, used at the beginning of the Reformation to repudiate, among other things, the Church's control over its members, led to a question: if there are no intermediaries between Christians and God, and it is only in scripture that one can find salvation, what happens if I don't have the scriptures handy, or I can't read, or I'm confused about what they mean? The answer, of course, is to listen to one's own “experts,” the preachers, who will not only read the scripture aloud, but tell you just what it means.
Protestants thus, ironically, valorized an even greater demand for church-licensed expositors than had previously been needed, while discouraging methods of prayer or reading that smacked of the dreaded Roman church. One self-described fundamentalist website, in describing Taizé activities, might as well be describing Lectio Divina:
“In short, [it] is an unbiblical attempt to connect with God. Scripture says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by the Word of God (Romans 10:17), yet [it] dispenses with preaching. Rather, it relies on idolatrous images, repetitive chants, and mystical experience to manufacture a sense of unity and peace.”8
In MacArthur's case, his dispensational theology requires both an extraordinarily strong insistence on a certain literalist reading of scripture and a correspondingly weak version of the work of the Spirit. Having thus delivered a low blow to an easy target, which I will probably have to confess as a lesser sin, let me get to the business at hand:
Step one: Silence
I am not new to the notion of silence. Not only was it normal in Friends' worship, but I also encountered it in a retreat run by an ecumenical group of Navy chaplains in San Diego. We were dispatched into the woods surrounding our retreat building to spend hours in total silence. The woods provided a degree of distraction—birds chirping, rustling leaves and branches, colors and textures—but in the end, we were left to listen to our own minds.
In my own life today, I enjoy not having to listen to a background of television chatter and radio music. I did not come to this easily. It took a year of enforced learning before I became comfortable being alone with no distractions.9 Entering silence, especially if one is not used to it, is both difficult and even a bit scary. Yet silence, free of distracting thoughts and close noises, leaves one free to concentrate on God.
Notice I said concentrate. This is not the beginning of some mind-emptying Eastern meditation. I've done that, and it has its place. Instead, we are preparing to focus on scripture.
If you are new to silence, or are bothered by outside noises, I suggest starting by practicing breathing. If your mother (or father) was not a voice teacher, like mine, or you did not spend your teen years under a good running coach, you may not know how to breathe. Breathing is controlled not by your chest, but lower down. If I asked you to take a deep breath, you probably would puff out your chest. (Welcome to last place in the 400-meter dash.) Instead of that, try pushing your belly out. The diaphragm muscles, located just below the chest, control breathing. When they contract, breath is pushed out. When they relax, breath enters. Two or three deep, slow breaths, controlled by the diaphragm, will oxygenate muscles, enhance relaxation and begin to take you to a quiet place.
Step Two: Focus
Once you are quiet, it's time to focus. In Friends worship, this is virtually automatic, but absent the surroundings of a roomful of people all practiced at, and doing, the same thing, it may take a bit to gather yourself and toss out distracting thoughts. I find that even with a Friends background, a short verbal reminder helps me. My personal reminder comes from the story of the thief crucified alongside Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus replies.10 This story, I like to think, is recalled in what liturgists call the “Kyrie.”11 At any rate, reciting Luke's story to myself puts me in a good place.
Step Three: Lectio
Lectio is reading. I am a fast reader, but I deliberately slow myself down for this reading, wanting to savor and experience the words. A bit of science here: when we read, especially something we've read before, we tend to anticipate and can easily “read” words that aren't actually there, or insert meanings from the past. When I learned to proofread in news writing, I would stand facing the typesetter and read upside down and backward, which vastly improved my ability to catch errors. There's another trick that some Lectio practitioners use, and that's to read the words aloud, or in a whisper. (Until roughly the 11th century, that's how virtually everybody read.) To “hear” the words as well as see them visually makes for a different, and often wonderful, experience.
Now, what to read? There are no rules, but keep in mind that you're going to be thinking about this, and it's difficult to keep too much stuff in mind at once. I like to read a single story, like the story of the sacrifice of Isaac or one of Jesus' parables, or a short Psalm, or a short section from one of the prophets. Some like to read the scripture sequentially, from Genesis to Revelation; others follow a suggested reading plan, or a lectionary program.12 Some, like me, decide on the spot what to read. It's a good idea, and many of my sources recommend, to re-read the selection. Go slow.
Step Four: Meditation
When I read good fiction—novels or short stories—I find myself almost witnessing the actions as if I was there. Similarly, good journalists can sometimes give me the same feeling about their tales. Some stories can actually move me to tears, or anger, or awe. Reading scripture, I believe, calls for the same level of involvement. Can we imagine ourselves accompanying Isaac and Abraham on their journey to the sacrificial site, or hearing the Psalmist proclaiming his composition? What does it look like, and sound like, and smell like? What clothes are we wearing, and how do they feel? Is the weather cool, hot, wet, dry? How does Abraham pick up and hold the knife? What is he thinking as they wend their way across the land?
The key to scriptural meditation is to allow the scripture to speak to us, not to impose a reading upon it. There are many expositors, conservative, liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist, Catholic, Reform, and on and on, who are more than happy to tell us what scripture means. But we do not conduct meditation for their benefit; rather, it is for us to listen to God.
Step Five: Prayer
It is a short, often imperceptible step from meditation to prayer. As we listen to the Spirit, we find ourselves replying. Replying can take many forms. Sometimes, we find ourselves, like Christ in Gethsemane, asking that we not be constrained to do what He wishes. At other times, we are worried about ourselves, our loved ones, or our community, and we ask for God's assistance, in whatever form He chooses. Or we may be confused, and ask for clarity; awed, and give praise; comforted, and give thanks; or simply rest in His peace.
Step Six: Contemplation
Just as it is often a tiny step from meditation to prayer, one can sometimes slip into contemplation from prayer. If it does not happen, there's no damage done. The entire process becomes easier and more productive with time and repetition. At times, contemplation can be an all-encompassing, overwhelming experience; at other times, a period of quiet reflection. One thing it is not, is verbal. In the presence of the Spirit, awareness moves beyond prayer and into a realm indescribable. This is where the mystics, the Sta. Teresas and St. Benedicts of old and the Thomas Mertons and Basil Penningtons of today find their bliss. But it is not only the few, but everyone to whom the Spirit is available. At times, it seems that traditional Protestantism has so directed our attention to readings and preaching that many of have lost the sweetness of resting in the Lord. No accident that the charismatics are the fastest growing movement in the church.
A Final Word
This is a flexible approach. Use it as you wish, how you wish. What is best for one Is not necessarily best for all. Pennington suggests taking about ten minutes. I sometimes take less, and often take more. One thing that is true, I believe, for all, is that developing a discipline is important. Set aside a time and/or place, and, as countless label directions specify, “repeat as necessary.”
1Nicoles and Noyes, Boston, 1868.
3The heavily annotated MacArthur Study Bible is available in four English (ESV, NASB, NKVJ and NIV) and one Spanish (RVR) versions.
4A good overview is available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/charismatic-renewal-movement.html. Retrieved 3/23/2018.
5Rev. Dennis Bennett's story can be found at http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/charismatic-renewal-movement.html. Retrieved 3/23/2018.
6Perhaps most famously, Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple megachurch in downtown Los Angeles (1100 Glendale Blvd.), and her Foursquare denomination.
7In laying out my method, I largely follow Dom M. Basil Pennington, but I have also learned much from- and highly recommend-- Thomas å Kempis, Sta. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola Fra. Thomas Merton, David Johnson (A Quaker Prayer Life). Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, Richard Foster, the Taize Community, and many others.
9I am forever grateful for my year at The Way Back house on 'A' street in San Diego.
10Luke 23:42-3. NRSV.
11Kyrie Eleison, Christie Eleison (Greek), or Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy (English).